New year, new graduate program intakes kicking off. Or… not. Stories of multiple graduate reneges seem to be increasing as the years roll on. What was once a strange and isolated phenomenon now seems to be a certainty for every program manager.

I find high renege rates in graduate recruitment quite fascinating. Whether it’s my marketer’s mind or my insatiable curiosity, when a trend like this emerges, there’s this innate urge to work out, why.

To be sure, one renege per intake isn’t a trend. I’m talking about multiple reneges at the eleventh hour. The reason being, well, isn’t everyone curious to find out what would make someone pull such an unprofessional, indecent, morally wrong move such as to ditch an employer, their first professional employer, at the final moment after hours of assessments and months of waiting?

The first thing I would do is ask.

Now, I find it unlikely the younger generation has the decency to pick up a phone when pulling the pin, and so are unlikely to explore this verbally with you (if they do? Dang!).

A super short open-ended survey is your way forward.

How I’d frame it:

Hey {Reneging Graduate’s Name}!

We’re super bummed that you’ll no longer be joining us at {{Devastated Employer’s Name}} this year. Would you mind helping us understand why?

Your feedback will help us improve our messaging and grad experience for future intakes. Your response will be anonymous – we’re just interested in the data!

{{Link to anonymous survey form}}

Q1: What’s the real reason you chose not to join {{Devastated Employer Name}}?

  1. I got a better offer
  2. I felt uncertain about the role
  3. I felt ignored since accepting
  4. Other (comment box)

Then I’d make these conditional questions depending on their first response.

For A) ‘I got a better job offer’

Q2. What specifically made their offer better? What does this employer offer you that we don’t?

[Open ended]

The reason this questioning is so powerful is for two reasons, actually.

First: If the new employer offers something that you can’t possibly compete with, that tells you that this graduate should never have been caught in your net in the first place. Emotionally, let them go.

Second: If they’ve ditched you for a better offer that you actually provide, then that tells you your recruitment messaging has failed you. Which obviously means, you need to run a content audit and pay more attention to your communication, interviews, and candidate experience.

How to use this information

Run a content audit of all your recruitment messaging (careersite, job ads, videos, socials, emails, interviews) to identify what you’re communicating that you shouldn’t be, and what you aren’t communicating that you should. Unfortunately, recruiters are notorious for writing vague, unhelpful job ads.

If you’re unsure of your messaging, then new hire and current grad interviews are the best value in town. Ask them why they like you and why they’d leave!

Now consider, should you be amplifying a particular benefit that better sells your offer and appeals to aligned candidates, and that will be dismissed by the candidates motivated by something not on your menu?

You’ll also want to factor this into your assessment process. If you’re consistently being ditched by graduates for the same reason, then you could try picking this up in the interview. Let’s say there’s a candidate who is motivated by big global brands and status (#aspo goal is the Big 4) and you’re a small brand who will never be able to compete on this. If you structure your interview correctly and the candidate sets off a ‘I’m interested in 20-hour workdays and industry prestige’ vibe, you’ll know it’s risky to offer them a role. You still can – but accept (and mitigate) the risk.

Good recruitment is about letting go of the wrong values fits as much as it is about finding quality skills.

[I will awkwardly note here that if “Super Massive Big Bonus Pile of Cash” is their response, again, it ain’t personal. But this is valuable feedback to send ‘up the line’. It could also mean you need to really hammer in the emotional benefits you provide in your offer or redesign your GVP & EVP.]

For B) ‘I felt uncertain about the role’

Q2. We’re sorry to hear that and for making you feel this way. What specifically contributed to your uncertainty?

[Open ended]

Potential responses here may be:

  • Industry upheaval – e.g. tech = it’s not about you specifically. Hurrah!
  • Company uncertainty in the media – maybe there have been publicised layoffs and a crying CEO circulating online.
  • They haven’t heard from you!

How to use this information

Regardless of how they answer this one, there’s a good chance their uncertainty could be managed with stronger communication throughout the candidate to new hire journey.

If you know there’s economic uncertainty (and you WOULD), then you need to be proactive with relationship management.

I would introduce a high touch communication campaign that regularly checks in with your new hires during the long wait between accepting and starting. For extra reassurance, I’d organise one or two grad events or in-office team catch ups to put on a show that it’s really Business As Usual ‘round ‘ere. (See below regarding reciprocity.)

Of course, if it’s possible this economic uncertainty will affect their position and you aren’t honestly communicating with them, then you can’t really blame them for keeping options open. No one wants to end up jobless!

For C) ‘I felt ignored since accepting’

Q2. We’re sorry to hear that and for making you feel this way. Clearly, our candidate to new hire experience needs some work! What specific experiences would you have enjoyed while waiting to start? (Any and all ideas are welcome!) We’ll use your feedback to do better next time.

How to use this information

Again, this is something that can be avoided. Be humble, be genuine, and act on their feedback.

I would probably even incorporate your response (the improvements you make based on their feedback) into future graduate program messaging – this tells future candidates (and hopefully the broken-hearted ones!) that you care about their experience and feedback.

Empathy wins fans, folks.

But, but, but…

Now, just in case you’re smugly sitting their thinking, ‘They’re going to think we’re desperate for asking. Hard pass.’ Please, allow me to share a story of mine.

While working with a multi-department government graduate program, we experienced a huge drop in applications from the previous year. For context, back then a whole-of-government application form existed where graduates could register their interest for multiple programs, and we would be able to invite them to our individual recruitment process when it opened.

Anyhoo – huge drop, right? So, my curiosity went into hard overdrive – every single light was flashing, and I even recall hearing sirens as well 🚨

So, I sent out a survey a bit like this:

Hey there {{name of student who did not apply to my prestigious program}},

You registered your interest in our {{prestigious graduate program}} but didn’t end up applying. Actually, we noticed a huge drop in application numbers this year, and we’re super curious to learn why.

Was it something we said? Accepted an offer already? Was our timing a problem? (genuine question, as we had pushed our process out and coincided with September exams! 🤦). If there’s something we can do better next year, we’d love to know!

One grad’s response floored me and stuck in my memory. For real, this is like almost verbatim.

“Oh, if I had have known you guys actually cared, I would have made more of an effort. I had too many assessments going on and now I regret not applying.”

What’d I say before?

Oh, yeah. Empathy wins fans, folks.

For D) Other

Hoorah! Choose your own adventure!

I’d just be genuinely grateful for their time and any feedback they provide. Hopefully, they write something constructive in the comments box. Then it’s up to you to act on that feedback in the most appropriate way.

How to use reciprocity to build brand loyalty to mitigate every scenario

Ahh, reciprocity. Every marketer’s persuasion tool of choice. For real, just like FOMO is used to force consumers to buy or apply when they maybe don’t want or need to, reciprocity can help you provoke a positive response from candidates and establish brand loyalty.

Reciprocity is when a generous act inspires a positive act in return. Best explained with an example:

My barista once gave me a free coffee when I tried ordering sweets, but they had none in stock. He felt bad, so gave me my coffee on the house. My impulsive response? I chucked $3 in his tip jar.


How to use it in grad recruitment

Some grad programs are doing this already. But you want to look at how you can provide maximum value to your appointed grads in the long wait between offers and start dates. I’ve seen this done really well where the employer provides access to some of their online learning resources.

In one program, graduates could access x number of personal development related modules like, Enhancing your LinkedIn profile, How to build a personal brand, How to show up on LinkedIn, How to network like a pro… etc.

Grad thinks, ‘Oh wow! These guys are awesome and really care about me.’ And in that moment, you start establishing brand loyalty. Throw in a few events or a free lunch and well, the intention is to provoke this feeling –

‘I don’t feel comfortable ditching Awesome Employer after all they’ve invested in me before I’ve even started!’

Final reassuring thought

Sometimes, you aren’t meant to win them all. Sometimes, you’re faced with graduates who just want what they want and don’t care about the carnage left in their wake. This post isn’t about them.

This post is to help you identify your holes and provide practical solutions to help you plug them so you can attract more of the right fits into your journey and treat them how they need to be treated while they’re with you. If you are able to influence the outcome, wouldn’t you try?

About the writer: Kelly Stone is a creative content writer who can help you communicate your employer brand with vibrant words that woo your talent. She’s on a mission to phase out jargony corp-speak, so employers better engage with young attention spans.